Different and the Same: Mixing Our Skin Tones

By Bernadette Nicholas

From early in the school year, skin tone has been a common topic of discussion in the Sprouts Room. Research shows that children notice physical differences, such as skin tone, starting from an early age. Not talking about it leaves children to make assumptions about why those differences exist, often basing their conclusions on societal messages. Many of these messages falsely associate darker skin with “badness.” So, when it comes to skin tone, it is important that adults abandon the idea of “colorblindness” and talk with children about these differences and provide more scientific information. Doing so validates the differences that children see in skin color and helps them to understand why those differences exist. 

Even before the school year began, it had been our intention to use skin tone mixing as one of the ways we explore the language of color. After differences in skin tone came up during children’s play and in conversations in group gatherings, we knew it was time for us as the teachers to address this topic.   

Initially, I was going to use the pre-mixed skin tone paints and allow children to use those to customize for their tone. But as Nya and Coretta were painting one night, they decided to paint my co-teacher, Amber. Using primary colors and white, Nya mixed her skin tone. After this, I threw out the idea of the pre-mixed paints and decided to stick with primary colors, black, and white. They were, after all, exploring the language of color.

We started with a couple of books. First, we read All the Color We Are to learn the science behind how our skin gets its color. Then we read Shades of People to see a range of skin tones and possible names for those colors. Next, we looked closely in a mirror to see what colors we could find in our skin. Lastly, equipped with yellow, red, blue, black, and white paint, we set out on the task of creating our color.

There were many challenges along the way. Sometimes the children had different ideas about what colors they saw when they looked at themselves than I did. Those were opportunities for me to practice trusting the children’s lead and allowing them to own the process. Other children struggled with starting from a blank slate and wanted more guidance on how to start. Those were opportunities for me to practice the art of scaffolding.

One child, Coretta, with brown skin like my own, had a very difficult time using the colors to get the right brown. Even with my help, every attempt not even close to her skin tone. Frustrated with my inability to help her achieve a satisfactory color, I took some time on my own to figure out how to mix my skin tone. I figured if I could get mine, I could help her with hers. After many attempts, I realized that while the other children could start with some combination of red, white, and yellow, she and I needed only yellow with a touch of red as a base. The moment we added white, the color turned a chalky brown that was not representative of either of our skin tones. The next day, I told her that I had found the secret of our skin, and I asked if she was willing to try again. Reluctantly, she agreed, and together, we were able to mix a color close to hers.

Closely examining their skin and recreating their skin tone gave the Sprouts an opportunity to explore their identity in a very concrete way. The colors they created were also used in subsequent identity exploration projects, including self-portraits and personal peg dolls. Skin tone mixing required them to notice all the different colors that come together to make their unique skin tone. While doing so, they also learned that other people in Sprouts have their own unique skin tone, too. In this way, they were not only exploring their own identity, but also that of our classroom community. Though each of our skin tones is different, the primary colors that we use to create our tones are the same. Similarly, though each of us is different and unique, we are all people. I believe that when we have a strong sense of our own identity and what makes us unique and special, it becomes easier for us to accept and celebrate the uniqueness of others while, at the same time, understanding there is more that connects us than separates us.

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